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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Peeping Out

Sometimes a question is so simple, and so poignant, that it needs no introduction:

I wonder where matriarchs and others stand on making your sexual identity known to a congregation?

I am a lesbian and in a stable (loving & wonderful) relationship, but I have never used the ‘L’ word with any congregation I have served. When I’m being introduced to a church it feels like a BIG thing to identify as a ‘lesbian minister’ when really I just want them to decide under God whether I am the right minister for them. I don’t feel that my identity is totally proscribed by being in a relationship with another woman. BUT then once I have got to know people it feels like pulling the rug from under them to suddenly say ‘Oh yes, and by the way, I’m gay’.

So what has happened is that in my present call (where I’ve been a few years now) some people have worked it out & ask after my partner, and others feel sorry for me ‘being on my own’. To them I try to say ‘I have support, I have good friends, N – for example’.

It feels as though some people choose not to see what is. I never lie about (for example) who I’ve been on holiday with, if people ask – but I’m not completely out and open & I suppose my question is – should I be?

It’s even a bit scary writing all that down – for so long the culture in my denomination has been not to make a fuss & just like people “get it” in their own time.

Thanks for your thoughts,

“Peeping out of the closet”

Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness, responds

Dear Peeping,

For years I did the same thing and it was only when Bishop Gene Robinson was elected and confirmed that I finally faced the reality of my existance. I was outted by a colleague to my parish and it cost me my parish. And even though my denomination (Episc.) was supportive of LG clerics, the reality was quite painful. It was only through the graciousness of a Lutheran bishop that I was able to work and get to retirement with enough credits to receive my pension.

Coming Out is an exercise of integrity. And I would not suggest it unless you and your partner have come to a place in your relationship where you want to live in the fishbowl that being Out requires. And for a while you will be seen as a 'one-issue' person even when you are not. This is one reason that I stayed quiet for so many years. My sexual proclivities don't define me. My partner is straight and our 35 year old relationship is a celibate one, but that doesn't seem to matter even in a denomination that says it supports LGBT issues. My being Out has had some splash-back on her too--she too is clergy. This has been the hardest to deal with.

If you choose to do more than peek Out, I would talk to your jurdical officials first. I would also then get a good spiritual director or therapist who can help you keep your eyes on Christ in the process. Clothe yourself in the integrity of your faith and have some good sistahs around to hold you up. It could get nasty--for some reason this issue seems to bring out meanness in those you would least expect. Make sure that your partner is supportive and willing to be a 'clergy wife.' And surround yourself with those who will love you through this step in your life. Do not try to come Out on your own.

I am so glad I was forced to claim myself as lesbian. I have never known such freedom. It was a surrender to the love that God has for me and forced me to trust in God in a way I never had. In retirement I don't have much income to play with but I have enough to be who I am. Keep supporting Medicare! and we may be able to know a peaceful retirement and watch a new day when straight folk will understand that love is love when it liberates and fills our hearts with joy. Just this past week I found that my former little Lutheran parish called the first partnered gay man in the synod. That, in itself is worth it.

Do you have some thoughts regarding this question? Please join the conversation by posting them below.

Do you have a question for the matriarchs? The queue is empty - no waiting! Please send your questions to us here.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. As a straight, non-partnered woman, I don't feel I have any advise to offer you, but I want to offer my support and loving prayers as you sort this out. May God Bless you and your partner.

  2. We need our straight non-partnered sisters, LF. It will be another generation or two before we can see this issue finally laid to rest. We are fighting the fight so that all may know the support of a community of faith that centers on the love that Christ brings to our lives.

  3. I wrote once and it disappeared, so I'm going to try again, but I'm sure I won't be as eloquent this time.

    I think the matriarch's advice is spot on. The main thing to consider here is how true you feel to who you are as a person and to your life with your partner as a couple. Maybe you are Out people who just don't go out much together. Maybe you have work boundaries. There are plenty of couples where the non-clergy spouse isn't around much. There's a big space between hiding who you are and not everyone needs to know all my business. You have to decide where you're located along that continuum.

    This is sadly such a loaded situation still and I agree with Muthah+ that it would be good to talk with a spiritual director or counselor about the issue and your feelings and expectations of yourself and your congregation. You may well also consult with clergy colleagues or judicatory officials (who know your situation AND who won't out you) and ask their advice.

    I will say, as a straight ally, that I have learned to back off from very strongly encouraging people to out themselves. I still want people to be Out (and I do encourage it), but I realize my role in *relationships* is support and my role in *public* is education, prayer and changing expectations.

    My prayers are with you for peace as you travel this road. And you do not walk alone.

  4. Another straight non-partnered supporter chiming in here to say that I think context is everything. Is your denomination open and inclusive, and is your parish open and inclusive? Were you not clergy would you feel comfortable being Out there? Is there support in your judicatory/diocese for LGBT clergy? And spouses/partners?

    I don't think one's orientation is the ultimate definer of one's identity, but being able to be open and honest and genuine about who you are is so very important--for all of us.

    I live in a part of the country where there are many openly gay clergy, but there are still congregations where it would NOT be okay. And "springing" it on a congregation who think they know you could be a shock. Are there people in your congregation whom you trust that you might confide in first? Can you get the support of your lay leadership before you go completely public?

    Whatever you decide, may God be with you and may you find peace with your decision.

  5. This is such a personal decision, but it would be a wonderful testament to the children in your congregation, as well as the other LGBT adults who may feel that secrets have to be kept, in order to be a valued part of the church, and more importantly A valued leader in the church.

  6. My situation is similar to the questioner's, except that the relationship is newer, and the realization is new for both of us. We are working through how to be authentic without making it seem dramatic. Of course it's personally dramatic for us! Any love story is. But in the context of the world it shouldn't have to be. One of us has 20-something children, and for their peers, being queer is no big deal. I want to find a way to communicate a new reality that is as matter-of-fact as possible. I have a sense that will reduce anxiety all around. I hope so, anyway.

    Thank you, Muthah+, for your witness, and all of you for the wise and encouraging words.

  7. I fell in love with my partner in summer Greek. Seminary was relatively safe and accepting, though we weren't out, other than that we were so frequently together. When I came my first call (and I'm still here!), I introduced Kathy as my "housemate" when we came to look for housing, and that freaked out one or two members, who asked the synod what that meant. I came to an emergency meeting of leaders of the congregation to assure them I was living within guidelines. I was careful not to lie; it was made easy as the questions were about sex, not love. I figured I could live without sex if that's what they were worried about. We've paid a price for that decision, but I think it was worth it to follow the call.

    For us coming out has been a process. The deeper the relationships, the safer it is to reveal one's heart. I survived a brush with breast cancer in 2007, which bonded me and the church and got my priorities in order. In 2009 the ELCA changed its guidelines, and my coming out process accelerated. My bishop has been pretty supportive, certainly for his generation and status as a lifelong "churchman" he does well by me. This year we decided to have a blessing ceremony, so after years of ambiguity I have recently come out to the congregation. One person is vocally unhappy; I've received several congratulatory phone calls; probably everyone else is in-between. I've named what they've known for a long time.

    I echo Muthah in saying how free I feel. I was not really aware of feeling bound; the last several years I have not felt hidden. But sending out invitations to an event, and the conversation with my council before sending out those invitations, have been incredibly freeing. If I'd known I was going to be this happy, I would have done this years ago (well, before 2009, I really couldn't). I was unprepared for other people's joy. A friend told me that's a form of internalized homophobia - that our relationships or ceremonies aren't as real or important as the straight folks, it doesn't occur to us that others care. Well, they do! The affirmation from all different areas of my life has been amazing, surprising. It gives me the confidence not to worry about the unhappy one or two - I say, I'm sorry you feel that way. I continue to love them. One of my parishioners said, "we love you, and of course Kathy too. Very proud to be a part of the ELCA."

    You never stop coming out. You always have to make a decision about what feels safe, what furthers or blocks communication and ministry. You will know when the time is right, when you can't not come out. One of those moments came for me at a synod event, at lunch I remember saying, I'm sick of hearing these straight people talk about my life (the aftermath of the 2009 decision to change ministry standards for who could be rostered in the ELCA). Someone's gonna have to come out, and I guess it's gonna have to be me. I've never regretted it. I haven't paid the price Muthah did, though. Assess what can be done, how open you can be, and start taking the steps. A conversation here, a conversation there. Remember you are not alone, that you have colleagues and friends who support you.

  8. as yet another non-partnered straight does occur to me, looking on in my own context, what an obscene waste of human time and energy and attentiveness and focus (and all like that) results from the need, perceived or real or both, NOT to be "out," and all the manoeuvring that that seems to entail -- As if plain old ministry weren't exhausting enough, all by itself.
    And I'll be glad when that waste of who we are isn't happening, any more.

  9. My dilemma is slightly different... I have supported LGBTQ friends in their journeys and willingly accept them in my church. But my denomination does NOT. So when the conversation turns to "what should we do about those gays" during a church leadership meeting, I either say nothing or I comment that Jesus did not order sins by order of 'awfulness'... Yeah. I prevaricate.

    I want to come out and be "an open and affirming" pastor, but I am (honestly) afraid.

    So my "coming out" is difficult from a strictly selfish angle. Pray with me that I will have courage. It is no easier where I sit. Trust me.

  10. I've been visiting your lovely site for years now and always glean some inspiration, thank you.

    I am part of an independent/ecumenical congregation that is slowly beginning to look at the issue of welcoming people of different sexual orientations. Slowly, leadership is having conversations with individual members to seek out their perspectives and stories. There's no one "pushing" this issue, i.e. wants to "come out" wondering if it's safe, but some people would like to be able to be sure that we are welcoming. Some members, while stating their own openness, worry that this will rip us apart.

    My questions to all of you are, what process/resources do you recommend to us? How can we do this well?

  11. I have a slightly different take on this. I am queer and out in a less than supportive denomination. I came out on the floor of my annual conference ten years ago, but I wasn't really in any closet before that. This is a highly personal and very charged political decision, which becomes a lived process that happens again and again.

    A clergy person, regardless of denominational support, must weigh risk against freedom. This is a horrible thing to have to do. It is a fundamentally cruel thing to tell a person who stands as a witness to God's love that he or she must decide whether wholeness is worth threats, assumptions, and potential loss of vocation or call. Yet, this is what we demand.

    I look at my closeted clergy colleagues and my heart breaks for them. I see the pain left in the wake of hiding
    part of themselves. I see shame and guilt that results from proclaiming a gospel that is too scary to embody. I hear their anger at a church that has nurtured, loved, and called them but might turn and wound them for being themselves fully. I see the toll taken on them in keeping private life and work life utterly separate.

    Fortunately, most mainline denominations have networks for queer clergy. If you don't know if yours has one or whether it is safe to be part of that group and would like to reach out someplace else, you can always contact me. Healthy clergy need healthy support systems. This is especially tricky for queer clergy, who experience increased feelings of isolation.

    Good luck with your path. You are not alone. Others are out. Others keep quiet. Many find some place in between. My only hope is that you choose the most healthy thing for you and your soul.


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